Classical music has turned into my theme of the week. Sunday I downloaded Yo Yo Ma’s version of “Meditation of Thais,” which I highly recommend and, as I mentioned previously, saw the Knoxville Chamber Orchestra. Monday night I walked to Church Street Methodist Church. The music ministry there is currently presenting a Master Arts Series which has included the Vienna Boy’s Choir among others. This week’s performance featured Edie Johnson, the church’s award winning organist, and Cathy Leach, professor of trumpet at the University of Tennessee.
Tim Ward, minister of music at the church introduced the program and Ms. Leach and Ms. Johnson took the stage. The building is among the most beautiful in Knoxville, and features excellent acoustics. The program was recorded for broadcast on WUOT. The organ, which is among the very best in our region, was moved to center stage and turned away from the audience in order to allow a view of the several keyboards, as well as the numerous stops and pedals.
I’d never considered the trumpet and organ particularly suited for duets, but this worked marvelously. The musicians wove the instruments together as if nature had intended that very thing. Jean-Michael Defaye’s “Prelude 1” from Huit Preludes gave a strong, muscular beginning to the evening. Johann Baptist Neruda’s “Trumpet Concerto in Eb” proved more melodic and, for my taste, more of a pleasure.
After that work-out on Trumpet, Dr. Leach took a break which allowed Ms. Johnson to pour some sweet soul into a beautiful fugue. She pointed out that typically when a fugue is performed, it was written by Bach. She performed “Prelude and Fugue in F mino, Op.7, No. 2” by Marcel Dupre which was excellent. She noted Dupre’s strong Bach influence as reflected in the fact that he could play all Bach fugues from memory.
Dr. Leach returned to the stage and the two performed “Fantasy for Trumpet and Organ” composed by Leo Sowerby and “Jesu Dulcis Memoria” by Pamela Decker, a contemporary composer from Arizona. I found her piece particularly beautiful.
At this point, Dr. Leach told the story of Ms. Johnson expressing a desire to have the final song accompanied by Doc Severinsen on Trumpet. I, as I think is the case with most people, know Doc as the leader of the NBC Orchestra, particularly his performances nightly on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I didn’t know that in his youth he also performed as the featured trumpet player with both the Benny Goodman Orchestra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
When I’d considered what the concert might be like, I tried to remember the last time I saw him, which would be in the final days of his time on the Tonight show in 1992. I thought he seemed pretty old then, though still cool in his own way. That’s been twenty-one years, and I reasoned that an old man twenty-one years later would likely have to be wheeled onto the stage in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank attached. How could he have enough air left to play the trumpet?
Well, color me stupid. He is eighty-five years old and looks every bit of sixty-five. Solidly built and dressed in tan cowboy boots, jeans and and a sharp jacket, he stepped onto the stage like the star he is. He immediately started some of the antics I remember from his days on the tonight show, teasing his fellow musicians and generally playing the ham.
Then he played. Good Lord, did he play. The trio set out on “There is a Balm in Gilead,” the only song I recognized through the concert. I use the word “recognized” simply to mean I knew the song previously. This version only faintly resembled anything I’d ever heard before. Grand from the beginning, it only grew larger as the trio worked its way through the old spiritual. Almost like a classical piece, with diversions and explorations in every direction with periodic returns to the theme, they worked it.
Dr. Leach introduced him as the “World’s Greatest Trumpet Player.” I inwardly gasped at this thinking of all the great trumpet players. By the end of this one song, I became a believer. From highs to lows, delicate to bombastic, from sustained notes to incredibly rapid trills, the guy is magical on his instrument. His song brought the audience of several hundred to their feet.
You will have an opportunity to hear him when he plays “Italian Style” with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra on April 13 at 8:00 PM at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium. Tickets range from $34 to $88, but it is worth the money to see this man make his art. He has an incredible gift and I’m very glad I drug myself out of the house on a cold night to hear him play.